The /Empire Strikes Back/ director: Irvin Kershner

[This is an extended version of the interview that appeared in the October 2004 Sound & Vision to accompany Carrie Fisher's exclusive interview with George Lucas.]

Most people know Irvin Kershner as the director of arguably the best of the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back . But his credits include a wide variety of movies, such as A Fine Madness (1966), Loving (1970), Up the Sandbox (1972), Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and Sean Connery's final turn as James Bond, Never Say Never Again (1983).

Why did George Lucas choose you to take care of his baby?That's what 20th Century Fox wanted to know, because they thought I was too old. I was over 55. They said, "Get a young man. Get someone in their 30s, somebody who will understand the kids." But George said, "No," he wanted me. George had been in my classes, my seminars at USC. I was teaching there, on and off, and we became friends. Later, we would meet every once in a while, and he would talk about some of the films I'd done - Eyes of Laura Mars, The Return of a Man Called Horse, and The Flim-Flam Man. He loved them. "I want you to do the film," he said, "because you know everything a Hollywood director's supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood."

I turned it down. I told him, "I don't know anything about special effects." But he said, "You don't have to. You think up anything you want and it's up to Industrial Light and Magic to make it work." Now, I don't know of anyone else who could have said that, but he owns the company. So I'd ask for the most impossible shots, and they would do it.

If you look at the scene in the asteroid field, I don't think there's anything more complicated than that. When we shot it, I had a board with buttons that set off a lot of flashbulbs outside the cockpit. The cockpit was on a rocker, but the movement was very slow. I said, "It won't work. Forget the rocker." I worked it out that we would use a handheld camera - a Panaflex. I'd say "Right!" and the camera would go left and they would throw themselves to the right. "Left!" - and it would create that sense of movement. And I would be setting off flashbulbs, which were supposed to be explosions. Where the flashbulbs were, ILM then showed asteroids hitting. We worked backwards.

Why didn't Lucas have you direct Return of the Jedi?For two reasons: One, I didn't want to. Two, I was asked halfway through shooting Empire, and by that time I knew that Jedi would be a three-year project. It took two years and nine months for me to do Empire, and I didn't want to go through that again. Also, I didn't think it was good to do two for George. I didn't want to be a Lucas employee. And I'd read the script of Jedi - not the whole script, but a scaled-down version - and I didn't believe it.

How did you like the changes made to Empire for the 1997 theatrical rerelease?My film is the way I cut it. The other films were changed - a lot. My film, I can tell you just what was done. The Snow Creature [Wampa] was added, which was good for merchandising. It was okay, but I could have lived without it.

When I went up to San Anselmo, California, to see the work in progress on the Special Edition, we looked at the film, and I was making some notes about color changes and sound - never about cutting. No cut changes. And we came to the scene where the group is on Cloud City, walking through a corridor. When I had originally shot it, I was not happy, and I told George I didn't like the set because it was just a corridor and we should have had round openings so you see the city as they walked through. It would have cost a lot of money to open it up and put miniatures out there, and it would have taken more time to build it, and you're always fighting time.

So, I'm sitting in the screening room looking at the scene. They walk down the corridor, and here are the openings and there is the city. I was shocked. I said, "George, look!" And he said, "Yeah. It's a gift for you." But those were the only changes.

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